The Baroness behind the Scarlet Pimpernel

Aristocrat also thought to have created the first female fictional detective

Baroness Orczy was from an  aristocratic family in Hungary
Baroness Orczy was from an 
aristocratic family in Hungary
British novelist and playwright Baroness Orczy, who is best known for creating the character of the Scarlet Pimpernel but also wrote several collections of detective short stories, was born on September 23, 1865 in Tarnaörs, a village in central Hungary, about 100km (62 miles) from the capital, Budapest.

Emma Magdolina Rozalia Maria Jozefa Borbala Orczy de Orci was the daughter of aristocratic parents, but when she was just three years old the family had to leave their estate because of fears of a peasant revolt. They came to live in London when Emma was 14, where she later attended art school.

There she met Henry George Montagu MacLean Barstow, the son of an English clergyman, who was an illustrator. They were married in 1894 and to supplement her husband’s low earnings, Emma started working as a translator and illustrator. After their only son was born, she wrote her first novel, which was not a success. She then wrote a series of detective stories for the Royal Magazine under the name Baroness Orczy and acquired a small following.

In 1903, she and her husband wrote a play based on one of her short stories about an English aristocrat, Sir Percy Blakeney, who in his guise as the Scarlet Pimpernel, rescues French aristocrats from the guillotine during the French Revolution. The play was accepted for production in the West End and ran for four years. It was translated and staged in other countries, generating huge success for Baroness Orczy’s subsequent novel featuring the Scarlet Pimpernel.

Baroness Orczy wrote several other plays, collections of shorts stories, and about 50 novels. Eventually she became so financially successful she and her husband were able to buy a villa in Monte Carlo.

Elvi Hale as Lady Molly in
The Woman in the Big Hat
One of her famous detective characters was Molly Robertson-Kirk, who first appeared in Lady Molly of Scotland Yard, a collection of short stories published in 1910 and probably the first book to feature a female detective as the main character. Lady Molly, like Miss Marple who was to come more than 20 years later, was a successful sleuth because she recognised domestic clues that were outside the experience of male detectives. The stories are narrated by Lady Molly’s female assistant, Mary Granard, who was perhaps the first female ‘Watson’.

I was delighted to come across a Lady Molly story from the 1910 collection recently in The Giant Book of Great Detective Stories edited by Herbert Van Thal.

In The Woman in the Big Hat, Lady Molly and her assistant, Mary, are having tea together in Lyons, when they notice a crowd of people forming outside the café on the opposite side of the road. Lady Molly is quick to join them and succeeds in gaining entrance to the café to view the cause of the commotion, which is the dead body of a customer. This is fortuitous as she soon receives a message saying Scotland Yard will require her assistance. She is told that there is a woman suspect in the case and they will ‘rely on her a great deal’.

Lady Molly of Scotland Yard is available as a paperback
Lady Molly of Scotland Yard
is available as a paperback
The police doctor says the man has been poisoned and Lady Molly questions one of the waitresses, who tells her the victim had been having tea with a woman in a big hat. Scotland Yard think they have discovered the identity of the woman and question her, but Lady Molly is present at the interview and passes a note to the chief officer telling him they have the wrong woman.

She neatly traps the person responsible for administering the poison in the café, with the help of two of the culprit’s own servants. Her faithful assistant, Mary, observes: ‘…my dear lady had been right from beginning to end.’ Lady Molly explains to Mary how she arrived at the truth, saying: ’Our fellows did not think of that because they are men.’

Lady Molly was the first in a long line of women in fiction who have been able to beat the police at their own job because they have noticed something very simple the male officers did not pick up on.

The Woman in the Big Hat was adapted for the anthology TV series, The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes in 1971, with Elvi Hale starring as Lady Molly.

Lady Molly of Scotland Yard is now available from or



How it all started for the Queen of Crime

Remembering Agatha Christie’s writing roots on the anniversary of her birth

As a child, Agatha Christie
taught herself to read
Agatha Christie, who was to become the best-selling novelist of all time, was born Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller on 15 September 1890 in a district of Torquay in Devon.

Her arrival at the home of her parents, Ashfield, in Barton Road in Tor Mohun, took place 131 years ago today. Agatha became such a popular and successful novelist that even though we are now well into the 21st century, her books are still being purchased from shops and on line and are regularly borrowed from public libraries. New film and television adaptations of her wonderful stories are constantly being made and she remains the most translated individual author to this day.

Agatha was educated at home and even though her mother did not want her to learn to read until she was eight, Agatha had taught herself to read by the time she was five.

She enjoyed the children’s stories of her time by authors such as Edith Nesbit and Louisa M Alcott, but also read poetry and thrillers at a young age.

By the time she was 18 she was writing short stories herself and had learnt French from her governess, the family having spent time living in France. This was to come in useful when she invented her little Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. She also visited Cairo for three months with her mother, an experience she was to draw on later for some of her novels.

The latest edition of  Christie's 1920 debut novel
The latest edition of 
Christie's 1920 debut novel
It was during the First World War that she turned to writing detective stories while she was working in a hospital dispensary. She responded to a bet made with her sister Madge, who challenged her to try to write a good detective story, and she worked out the plot for her debut novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, while working at Torbay Hospital. She had recently completed the examination of the Society of Apothecaries and was able to put her newly acquired knowledge of poisons to good use.

Agatha was unsuccessful to begin with and suffered six consecutive rejections from publishers. If she’d given up at that point the world would never have had the huge body of work that has entertained so many millions of people over the years.

The turning point came for Agatha when her novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was published in 1920, when she was 30 years of age, and she never looked back. She went on to write a total of 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections. She also wrote the world’s longest running play, The Mousetrap, which was performed in London’s West End  from 1952 to 2020, when the theatre had to be closed down because of Covid 19 restrictions.

Her novel And Then There Were None is one of the top-selling books of all time, with approximately 100 million copies sold.

Agatha was co-president of the elite Detection Club  from 1958 to her death in 1976. In the 1971 New Year Honours she was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

When her death was announced, two West End theatres, St Martin’s, where The Mousetrap was playing, and the Savoy, which was at the time staging Murder at the Vicarage, dimmed their outside lights in her honour.

Her novels have never gone out of print and are constantly being republished with new cover designs and in different formats.

The latest editions are available from or



Tragedy at Law

Legal mystery written 80 years ago is still enthralling readers today

Tragedy at Law has been in print continuously since 1942
Tragedy at Law has been in
print continuously since 1942
Regarded by many as the best English detective story set in the legal world, Tragedy at Law, by Cyril Hare, has never been out of print since it was first published by Faber and Faber in 1942.

Cyril Hare was the pen name for Alfred Alexander Gordon Clark, a barrister and judge, who was born on this day in 1900 in Mickleham in Surrey. Tragedy at Law was his fourth and best-known novel, in which he was able to draw on his legal knowledge and his experiences while working as a judge’s marshal at the beginning of World War II.

It introduces Francis Pettigrew, a not very successful barrister, who manages to solve the baffling mystery because of his exceptional knowledge of the law. The character was to live on in four other novels written by Hare.

Providing readers with a fascinating glimpse into the life of a judge just before the war, Tragedy at Law follows Mr Justice Barber, a High Court judge, as he moves from town to town presiding in cases at the courts of assize on the southern England circuit.

Barber takes with him an entourage of wife, butler, cook, clerk and marshal, who reside with him at his ‘lodgings’ in each town. He receives anonymous threatening letters, unpleasant items in parcels and there are attempts made on his life as he travels from place to place, despite him being constantly guarded by the police, his wife and his marshal.

Hare took his pseudonym from the legal chambers where he practised
Hare took his pseudonym from the
legal chambers where he practised
The novel is beautifully written with plenty of details about the lifestyle of a judge of assize and Hare keeps the reader guessing about the solution to the mystery right to the last page.

The writer’s pseudonym was derived from a mixture of Hare Court, where he was in Chambers as a barrister in London, and Cyril Mansions, where he lived.

Hare also wrote many short stories  for the London Evening Standard and some radio and stage plays and he was a keen member of the Detection Club.

After the war the novelist was appointed a county court judge in Surrey. He died in 1958, when he was at the peak of his career as a judge and at the height of his powers as a master of the whodunnit.

In 1990, when the British Crime Writers’ Association published their list of The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time, they awarded the 85th place to Cyril Hare's Tragedy at Law.

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